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Questions to Ask Yourself Before Hitting the Trail With Fido

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

hiking with your dog

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  • Hiking provides an opportunity to exercise and bond with your dog, and he’ll also receive lots of mental stimulation exploring the great outdoors
  • Before you hit the trail, it’s important to make sure your dog is physically fit, has good leash manners, and responds reliably to your verbal commands
  • It’s also important to have appropriate dog hiking gear, and to ensure the trail you’re interested in is dog-friendly
  • After a hike, it’s important to check your dog thoroughly for ticks, bites, scrapes, and other injuries

Taking your dog hiking with you is an excellent way for both of you to get some much-needed physical exercise and bonding time. A few hours on the trail in the great outdoors can do wonders to clear your mind and challenge your muscles, and it also provides your dog with abundant opportunities to explore nature with his nose.

Of course, it goes without saying that both you and your four-legged hiking buddy should be reasonably fit before attempting such an adventure. If you're not sure your dog is in good enough physical condition for a hike, get a second opinion from your veterinarian.

If he doesn't normally get much exercise, is overweight, a senior, or has arthritis or another condition that limits his mobility, you'll want to consider those things before setting off on even a mildly challenging hike. You certainly don't want him to get hurt, and you need to think about whether you'll be able to carry him the distance if something happens or he tires out earlier than expected.

Additional Considerations for Hiking with Your Dog

Does she have proper leash manners? If trail signs say all dogs must be leashed, or you're hiking steep or especially rugged terrain or around fast-moving water, or if there's another compelling reason to keep your dog tethered to you, you'll want to make sure she's comfortable on-leash.

Use a standard leash (not a retractable leash) attached to a harness, not a collar. If you need to snatch your dog away from the edge of a cliff, or she loses her footing on a steep incline, or she jumps into fast moving water, the tool you'll need to save her is a standard flat 6-foot leash and a harness. The harness will allow you to lift her if necessary, and it will also prevent a serious neck injury.

While hiking, hold your end of the leash securely, but don't wrap it around your hand or wrist, especially in areas where your footing is unsure. If your dog takes a tumble, she could pull you down with her, which will put both of you in danger. If she falls and injures herself, you want to be able to carry her to safety or if that's not possible, go for help.

Does he respond reliably when called? If you're planning to hike with your pet off-leash, he should be in the consistent habit of coming when called and responding to basic commands. He should also be well-socialized around unfamiliar people and other dogs, and have a manageable prey drive (especially with snakes, if they're in your area).

When you're outdoors and your dog is off-leash, his responsiveness to your commands can literally save his life. It can also prevent him from annoying or scaring other hikers, clashing with another dog on the trail, or taste-testing wildlife poop.

If your dog isn't consistently responsive when you call him or give him a "no" or "drop" command, it's a very good idea to arrange for some positive reinforcement behavior training before you allow him off-leash on hikes. In the meantime, keep him on a standard leash attached to a harness, and regardless of whether you plan to hike with him on or off-leash, be sure to keep a leash with you at all times.

Do I have suitable dog hiking gear? Make sure your dog has an up-to-date ID tag or collar, even if she's also microchipped or tattooed. The fastest way for someone who finds your dog to get her back to you is to call the number on her ID tag.

Your dog will need frequent water breaks along the trail, so be prepared with a lightweight, collapsible travel bowl or a simple plastic container and plenty of fresh water for both of you. Stop at regular intervals to offer her a drink, and especially if she's panting a lot. Keeping her well-hydrated will also prevent her from drinking from a stagnant water source. Standing water can harbor all kinds of pathogenic bacteria and parasites, so it's best to keep her a safe distance away.

You'll want to pack a few healthy snacks to feed her along the way as well, and don't forget dog poop bags, especially if you'll be hiking on heavily traveled trails. I also recommend bringing along a small first aid kit with essential emergency items like gauze, scissors, or tape. And don't forget your cell phone.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergiesClick here to find out Dr. Becker's top tips against seasonal pet allergies

Is Your Hiking Destination Dog-Friendly?

It's a good idea to plan ahead for hikes with your dog to ensure the trails you're interested in are dog-friendly, because for a variety of reasons, including the ones below from the National Park Service, not all trails allow furry hikers:1

Dogs can carry disease into wildlife populations

Dogs can chase and threaten wildlife, keeping them from nesting, feeding and resting sites

A dog's scent left behind may disrupt or alter the behavior of wildlife in the area

Dog barking disturbs the quiet of the wilderness

Pets can be endangered by larger predators like coyotes and bears

Many people are frightened by dogs and uncontrolled dogs can present a danger to other park visitors

Get in the habit of checking park websites for dog regulations, trail renovations, closings and weather alerts. And when on the trail with your dog, be sure to follow park rules, such as the National Park Service's notice that, "Pet excrement must be immediately collected by the pet handler and disposed of in a trash receptacle."

Once You're Back Home

No matter where you live or hike, it's always a good idea when you return from an outdoor adventure to give your dog a nose-to-tail inspection to check for ticks and other pests, foxtails, insect or spider bite marks, scrapes and other wounds. Pay particular attention to the footpads and between the toes. Also, check in, under and around your dog's ears.

You might also want to give him a foot bath to wash away allergens, dirt, and debris. If you think he might have come in contact with poison oak, ivy, or sumac, it's a good idea to give him a full bath. Preparing ahead of time for a hike with your dog will help make your time together in nature safe and more enjoyable. If you're new to hiking, or your pet is, you may just find that your time on the trail together strengthens the bond you share with your canine companion.

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